Sunday, May 1, 2011

Happy May Day

Detail Dolly Varden quilt
Designed by Esther O'Neill

I hope someone put a bouquet of flowers on your doorstep this morning. I recently received an email from quilt historian Xenia Cord that opened up a May bouquet. I'd shown a faded picture of a quilt dated 1923 in my subscription newsletter on date-inscribed quilt.  I thought it was embroidered but she filled me in on the source.
"It's a version of Esther O'Neill's [appliqued] "Dolly Varden" quilt. O'Neill had a fancywork shop in Indianapolis, and graduated to kits in the late teens. She published the "Dolly Varden" in several versions..."

Quilt dated 1923 with scalloped border

A version with buds in the border

... with and without the colored border with inside scallops, omitting that detail in 1924 because, in her words: ...This is on account of the scarcity of goods and advance in prices." (Typed note on the back of a design sheet, in envelope postmarked July 28, 1924).

See three versions of her leaflet (and note that the bow goes at the top!):

Aunt Martha's version of the Dolly Varden quilt from Royal Neighbor magazine, April 1931.
I was familiar with the term Dolly Varden, at least as far as fish are concerned.
Dolly Varden Trout
with spots

But I didn't know that the source of the term Dolly Varden for something gaudy or colorful is from a character in Charles Dickens's book Barnaby Rudge.

Dolly was a character who was a bit overdressed. Her name seems to have been applied to everything in the 1870s, particularly a hat perched on the head and a very complex bustle. Here's a description of her from Barnaby Rudge
"As to Dolly, there she was again, the very pink and pattern of good looks, in a smart little cherry-coloured mantle, with a hood of the same drawn over her head, and upon the top of that hood, a little straw hat trimmed with cherry-coloured ribbons, and worn the merest trifle on one side—just enough in short to make it the wickedest and most provoking headdress that ever malicious milliner devised."
Read the book Barnaby Rudge at Google Books by clicking here:
Dolly Varden cigar box

Another version of Esther O'Neill's design without the scallop border

Read about the Dolly Varden dress by clicking here:

See Esther O'Neill Mullinex's quilt at the Indiana State Museum by clicking here:


  1. I think "Dolly Varden" is a name I would give to the hat Princess Beatrix wore to her cousins William's wedding last week. GASP!

    Thanks for the info, as usual it was interesting and put some flesh on my skeleton of information.

  2. Wow, I had no idea the history of Dolly Varden. It is definitely a term you can use for some of the hats from the royal wedding.